WHO director-general candidates down to 5

Who made it into the top five in World Health Organization's shortlist for director-general candidates? Photo by: United States Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

The World Health Organization’s Executive Board whittled its list of candidates running to be its new director-general down to five, with Ethiopian candidate Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the lead.

Executive Board Chairman Ray Busuttil announced the shortlist Tuesday morning, following a closed-door session. Apart from Tedros, the list included Britain’s David Nabarro, France’s Philippe Douste-Blazy, Italy’s Flavia Bustreo and Pakistan’s Sania Nishtar.

There’s little surprise in global health circles that Miklos Szócska, Hungary’s candidate, didn’t make it through to the next round of the contest. Several global health experts who are following the elections told Devex that they regarded the former health minister as having a thin portfolio when it came to international experience and believed he would likely be the first one to exit the race — although this is not the only factor that likely played a hand in the result.

Szócska’s platform had a narrower scope than that of other candidates such as Tedros and Nabarro, according to Dr. Kent Buse, chief of strategic policy directions at UNAIDS, who analyzed candidates’ manifestos in a paper published in The Lancet early this month, titled “WHOse agenda for WHOm? Analysing the manifestos of the candidates for director-general of WHO.”

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Whoever wins among six candidates for the director-generalship of the World Health Organization will have a consequential impact on the future of agency and of global public health itself. Candidates are promising leadership and bold change. But any reform will have to contest with a WHO's fraught budget, demanding member states and a stultifying bureaucracy. Devex takes an exclusive look at the stakes behind the vote.

“This meant that he would have had the support of fewer global health constituencies,” Buse told Devex.

In addition, the WHO director-general race is very much a geopolitical contest. With four European candidates, it was “almost inevitable” one of them would be “knocked out at the first round,” he said.

Buse hopes that with Szócska’s departure, other candidates could be more outspoken on the issue of preventing noncommunicable diseases.

“All of the candidates have stated their commitment to tackling NCDs as a priority for WHO. But Szócska seemed to me most outspoken and also specific about how he would deal with the commercial drivers that lead to high consumption of these unhealthy substances,” the UNAIDS official said. “He made good progress on this as health minister in Hungary, which he indicated he would take forward through WHO.”

Szócska garnered the least number of votes from the 34-member WHO executive board — 13 in total — as seen in an unofficial tally circling on social media following the vote.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Szócska thanked “all who supported my program” and wished the other candidates luck going forward.

Tedros, meanwhile, had the full support of the board, with 34 votes in, followed by the two women candidates: Flavia Bustreo (33 votes) and Sania Nishtar (32 votes).

Nabarro, whom observers predict will make it to the top three this week, had 30 votes in, while Douste-Blazy secured 28 votes.

WHO will not confirm the vote breakdown.

“We don’t provide these numbers,” Tarik Jašarević, media relations at WHO, told Devex.

Tuesday’s vote took about an hour or less, but Wednesday’s vote for the top three is expected to dominate the full day of sessions, with the possibility of extending beyond the usual schedule.

The board will interview each candidate for a maximum of an hour, in which candidates are expected to present their vision for the health aid agency and answer questions by members of the board. Again, this will take place behind closed doors, although there are calls for WHO to open the election to the public for transparency purposes.

Board Chairman Busuttil will publicly announce the names of the three nominees — who will advance to the elections in May at the 70th World Health Assembly — by Wednesday evening.

The election in May will be the first time the vote will be open to the organization's entire 194 country membership instead of just the executive board. The contest is being closely watched by development professionals and many others. Ultimately, the leader of the organization will have a major impact not just on the WHO but on all of global health policy.

Also during Tuesday’s morning session, the board appointed Mahmoud Fikri as the new regional director of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office. Fikri, from the United Arab Emirates, will start his term in February.

Editor’s Note, Jan. 24: This article was updated to include comments from Dr. Kent Buse and analysis of Szócska’s platform.

Read Devex’s exclusive look at the stakes behind the vote, and stay tuned to Devex for more coverage and analysis on the election of the next WHO director-general in May 2017.

About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.